By Douglas Hill
WHEN KAY WAS THIRTY-THREE, Ed performed lat pulldowns in front of her StairMaster at the gym for ten minutes. After a few months he decided to move in, and she let him. He was a finish carpenter, good with saws, so he should have been good with his hands, but he had no sense of modulation.
Now she was thirty-six and he had left for the coast. This could have been a Band-Aid falling off: he was too little fun for love, and too much gut for lust. Kay knew this, yet she missed him. She fell asleep watching cable in an armchair. The bed was too big. Her bathrobe was stained, mostly raspberry yogurt, her only refrigerator food. She stopped showering daily. Kay hoped that this was not evident at the store.
She owned The Pette Shoppe, but a “pet shop” is a definite thing, and this was not that. She sold only those things that a dog’s owners, up at their condo for a week, would imagine Prince or Snooky might hold in high regard. Embroidered cushions, oily four-legged sweaters knitted on Scottish islands, and her specialty: homemade dog treats. She baked them in the back room, so instead of the biting odors that soak a normal pet shop, there was a cozy kitchen smell.
The shop had started with a big batch of dog cookies, inexpensive Christmas presents well received. Then a card table at a craft fair. Then Ed put together a cart that she towed to festivals. And finally, because he argued her into it, the leap to the shop.
The shop was never full, and empty too often, as today. This was a poor living and a boring life, without Ed. Today was her birthday.
No card from Ed.
The bell danced on its spring above the shop door, as Caroline held it open for LC (Little Caroline). Cool: company, not just customers.
They came into the shop twice a week for treats. Oddly, the three of them had the same birthday. Kay had learned this two years ago—one day just LC came, wanting a nice water bowl, a birthday present for her mom, “for the strays.” Kay wrapped it carefully and curled extra ribbon.
“Happy— ” Kay started it.
“— Birthday!” they all said, and LC and Kay laughed.
Kay pulled a tray of Liver Chip Cookies from the display case.
Kay dropped the treats into a bag. “Everything good? How’s the house business?”
“Good! Got a new listing last week. That big house up on Alpine Drive.”
“Probably couldn’t take the drive. I wouldn’t.” Tourists were nuts. This was a nice place, but six hours each way?
“Absolutely. But we’re all glad they do.”
LC hid behind the open rack of dog leashes and chains that hung like a bead curtain. Her face peeked through. “Kay?”
“We’re having a party tonight at our house, just us. You want to come?” LC sounded so like Caroline. And Caroline tipped her head a little and smiled.
Well, that was sweet! Kay had never been inside that house. A big blue and white gingerbread Victorian, built to Caroline’s design.
“OK. But you have to let me bring some wine.”
Caroline took Kay’s hands and squeezed. “Bring whatever you want.”
Kay wasn’t sure how much intimacy she could handle right now, but she’d try. Better than falling asleep to Friends reruns.
Autumn rolled by Caroline as she drove to town, and she fixed on it to get her mind off the Goldwaters. A screen of aspens hid the creek that ran along the road. Their vertical leaves turned brighter each day, unveiling yellow and gold hearts, and a few rich red. Driving, Caroline focused her ability. She tasted the needles and fruit of a fat juniper baking in the sun on the other side of the Mountain and acrid marigolds in a window box two miles south of town.
Halfway down the hill a torn white plastic bag fluttered against a garbage can, and trash had leaked onto the pine needles. A dirty tan dog was halfway into the bag. Caroline pulled onto the shoulder fifty feet past it. Normally LC would have stayed in the car, but not today.
“Your turn, kiddo.”
LC got out. Caroline handed her two big dog treats and stayed in the car.
LC extended a treat and walked slowly toward the dog. It was a chow, maybe. Chows could be mean, but she wasn’t really afraid. She didn’t want to get started with this yet, is all. She was still a kid. Her foot bumped a fir cone, and the dog backed out of the trash bag away from her, growling. Shit. She was clumsy. She was not good at this. She’d be a dental hygienist or something. Chows could be mean.
“Heeey, boy,” quiet, just above a whisper. The dog took a half-step, sniffed toward her. The calm in her voice nudged him to her and he walked without suspicion. LC felt him calm. He was a wonderful dog. He took the biscuit and swallowed with a moan.
“Tough life out here, huh, boy?” She stroked his ears, his thoughts moving up through her hands. He was old, and it hurt to swallow. He had run away from a man who came home drunk some nights and kicked him. It made her throat tighten and her eyes wet. “That’s bad. I’m really sorry.” Some people fed him, but mostly he ate garbage, and he hurt every night when it got cold. He hurt all the time. He wanted peace, and he looked right into her face to say it.
“And the snow’s coming. You can taste it, huh?” The dog whined. He licked her hand elaborately. She gave him the other biscuit and scratched his belly.
She was still a kid. Yeah, she could do some of the things Mom could do, but she shouldn’t have to rush into everything. She was going to be in charge of growing up. Not like the Mountain teens with their weed and meth and beer. LC had pretty much given up on finding a BFF until college.
But now she could do this. Which would have been a problem, with a best friend.
Roberto backed into the store, boxes stacked from forearms to nose. Incredible ass, incredible hamstrings. Kay hadn’t noticed before, which felt sad.
“Roberto, you’re still gonna wear those shorts after the snow comes.”
“I figure us middle-aged UPS drivers owe something to the world.” He eased the pile of boxes onto the counter, and Kay signed his electronic clipboard. She suddenly felt, very stupidly, that flirting was cheating on Ed.
On his way out he waved. Through the window, Kay followed him to the truck. Middle-aged, bullshit. Must be mid-thirties, same as her, and plenty of gym time.
She got out the utility knife and sliced the boxes. But the biggest was armored with heavy tape. A customer came in and she tucked it under the counter to open later. The box was warm. Roberto must have the truck heater up, the hot air pouring onto his meaty legs and up into his shorts.
Caroline pulled the sign and the tall metal stake from her trunk: Homes by Caroline / Service by the Best! She picked a spot next to the Goldwater driveway, held the stake in her left hand, and carefully rapped a small sledge against the top of it.
Achievement was a choice. She alone controlled, dictated, her own happiness. She had the ability to make her own future. There was no “slow market,” no “shoulder season.” No. Those were excuses.
On the plaques in the sales office lobby, fifty-four of the last sixty-two slips of bronze carried her name, pleasingly identical. She’d taken the White Diamond four years in a row. She would close it again this year. Definitely, with this sale. She was there to primp the house. She followed her checklist from kitchen to office to master suite.
1520 Alpine Drive was big and expensive and very custom, and Caroline had helped the Goldwaters into it two years before. Henry and Laura Goldwater and their sweet daughter, Maya, drove up together to hunt down their mountain retreat. Two long holiday weekends, leading to an excited Christmas vacation signing papers and reveling in the empty house. They came again soon, meeting a van full of furniture. Their first dinner guests were the Carolines, big and little.
But now the Goldwaters had reversed course, and the house was back on the market. Naturally, they hired Caroline as agent. She figured a month to find a buyer, and the Goldwaters wanted a thirty-day escrow. A fifth year of record earnings.
It had taken only one little nudge, easy stuff. Henry was a jerk, and Ashleigh, an intern at the investment bank, was the perfect choice: sexually experimental, post-Princeton-BA, pre-Harvard-MBA, gorgeous, and she even liked golf. Caroline had watched Ashleigh watching Henry throughout a meeting. Ashleigh was bewildered by the attraction. She had never wanted an older man, but was drawn into him by scent or taste.
Laura would obviously grow from the breakup. Mother and daughter would bond at a crucial stage in the girl’s life. Laura would use the alimony checks to go back and finish her dissertation. And she’d trade up from Henry. Best thing in the world for her. Hell, even Henry would make out: he’d get to boff a twenty-three-year old. It would only last six months, but he’d have the memory and, with his money, another woman soon enough.
This had become so easy. She should let herself have more vacation time as a handicap.
Clearing the master bath, Caroline found a brush with hairs caught in the bristles, of Laura’s color and length. She filled the sink with hot water and floated a hair on it. She focused. She smiled down at Laura, and then Henry and Ashleigh.
Then she recoiled. One night early in the breakup the lid had blown off the margaritas and Xanax, and Laura swallowed a month’s worth of pills. She woke up fifteen hours later, strapped to a hospital bed, learning that it’s difficult to kill yourself with benzos. She wouldn’t give the nurses Henry’s cell number, and the resident finally had to let her go with a psychiatric referral. A week later Laura’s Cayenne steered itself into a freeway overpass, but fine German engineering preserved her.
Caroline was shaking.
Three times was a charm. Laura had found a doctor who’d prescribe barbiturates to help her sleep, just the minimum, and she stockpiled. She had just picked up the third month’s supply. Tonight, two big bottles of pre-mixed margaritas would be mounted on the travertine deck of the Jacuzzi tub along with some toast to steady her stomach.
And Maya, injured by Laura’s first two attempts and aching for her dad, had started slitting the insides of her thighs with a curved blade mounted on an X-Acto knife. She was eleven, would not live to be a woman.
This was terrible, evil, monstrous, the worst thing in the world. This was not how these things worked out. This never happened. Caroline stood, horrified, staring at the sink.
She wrapped the hair back into the brush, carefully, as it had been. She wiped clear her tear-tracks with the heel of her hand. She touched up her makeup in the mirror and had to pause and breathe so she wouldn’t cry again. She was an idiot. She had to turn this back.
It was slow all afternoon in the shop, and Kay was increasingly glad of the invitation. She was sick of the emptiness of shoulder season, between the mountain bikers and the skiers. She was sick of not deciding what she wanted. Caroline was so much in control of her own life. She knew what she wanted, and she went out and got it. Kay could learn from that.
She wondered where Ed was. Somewhere in lower New Hampshire looking for work. She hoisted that last cardboard box onto the counter and cut it open. It was still warm. A scent flowed into the shop of mushrooms, and ginger, and a man’s body after a workout. Buried in a mass of shredded newspaper was a crystal nestled in a hollow of black silk. It must be natural, just a stick of rock with six sides that weren’t quite identical. A couple of inches across, maybe four inches long. Almost clear, but with a spiral of gray smoke, and something sparkling at its center. An iron hook sunk into it.
Kay had not ordered this; Roberto had made a mistake. She should call UPS. She went to the window and held it in the late sunlight. The side facing Kay filled with her face, framed in fire. She turned it a millimeter and the reflection flickered into Ed, unloading a table saw at a jobsite. He looked unhappy. Lonely.
She turned it again: the shop, overflowing with people. It was coffee in the morning, stepping into a good day.
She hung the crystal in the center of the window. To hell with calling UPS.
The dog was waiting. LC sent him up the hill to the playhouse. Steel bowls of kibble and water were set out on its porch.
She stacked her Friday homework at the far end of the kitchen table and thought about the dog, not eagerly. When she’d finished her algebra problems she guilted herself into the rubber apron and up to the playhouse. He was standing, soft and calm, and his eyes asked again. She paused on the path, the door opened, and he went in. It was time. She was ready. It was part of growing up. She followed him.
Now in the first cold months there would be more dogs than in the summer. The snow would come soon and the dogs would step carefully in the tire tracks on the driveway, so no prints would point to the house or the playhouse. Then later in the winter the strays would be dead, and mostly coyotes and squirrels would come, and snakes that Mom would lift from their holes. Then deer in the spring, and then the dogs would start again.
LC finished her homework and stirred the stew. All by herself, her first time. A stew for three, with plenty of lean meat. She had diced the kidneys small, but the pieces still made some spoonfuls sharp. Mom always kept those in her mouth a moment. Maybe LC would like them better now. She had sautéed the meat first, something she found on the Net. Bay and cilantro floated on the pink froth and the kitchen was humid and meaty. She and Mom had grown the herbs in the summer, and dried them. They had to pick them themselves for it to work. Like the dogs.
The meat made you strong. He had still been strong. She would be strong.
On a normal day, Caroline delighted in Lake Jimmy.
Clustered around the Mountain were twelve lakes of ordinary beauty, threaded together with creeks. They had picnic tables, boat launches, trails, and bathrooms; several had canoes and paddleboats. Cabins and condos circled them. The lake developments were the town’s summer economy, as the Mountain was in winter.
But not Lake Jimmy. No amenities, no road, barely a trail. Evenings, after LC finished her homework, she and Caroline walked up to it, under the north side of the Mountain, a steep hundred yards above their home.
They sat on the log remains of a lodgepole pine. Just above the eastern hills the full moon feathered onto Jimmy’s water, between the shadows of black trunks and empty limbs. There were no needles on the trees that remained standing at this lake.
LC was thirteen tonight. She drank her Mexican Coke, the kind that was made with real sugar and came in those heavy old-style bottles. She glanced at Mom, who didn’t seem to notice, and then mirrored her little sips. A small sip of anything was almost as good as a big sip, and you got a lot more of them. Grown-ups thought that way.
LC was doing more and more adult things. She was cooking tonight, her first time, and she had invited Kay, who was nice. And Kay would come, LC could see that much. LC could share things with Kay, things she was learning. Teaching an adult would be so cool. That was part of being one, too.
Caroline’s Coke concealed two shots of Myers’s rum. The dark sweet scent popped from the CO2 bubbles. Caroline unlocked her abilities, gazed into the Coke, and pushed very, very hard. In half a minute Maya went to Laura, asking for help with the poster board for her science fair project. That would take until ten at least, maybe eleven. Laura screamed at her to go away. Great. Their last words together. That made everything better. That was the best Caroline could do by herself.
Kay frowned at the darkened shop. It could be fun with plenty of customers. Not now. She was going to need kick-ass turnover during the holidays just to keep it open.
She got a bottle of wine. On the way out she paused at the window, untied the crystal, and hefted it. The weight on her palm pleased but didn’t satisfy, and she squeezed it hard. She relaxed her hand. It was stamped with the crystal’s edges. Her skin had learned something she couldn’t resolve, like a few notes remembered from sleep. Maybe Kay would take the crystal to show it to Caroline and LC. That was silly. But she slipped a chain through the crystal’s hook and wrapped it three times around her neck.
Caroline followed the path up and around to the back of Lake Jimmy. She let the pool appear. Fifty feet above the lake, eight feet wide, a rough circle. It seemed to boil. A spring of hot water and carbon dioxide had carved the pool. Mud spread around it for half a dozen yards, then a circle of pines, but no trees between the pool and the moon rising over the lake.
The lake was for contemplation, the pool for celebration.
LC came up with her stew, wooden bowls, wooden spoons, and a corkscrew. Tonight the water flowed fast and hot. The gas sparkled as they slipped into the pool, naked in champagne from the Mountain’s roots.
Kay knocked on Caroline’s door. She waited a minute, knocked again. If they weren’t here she’d go home and drink the whole goddamn bottle herself.
A distant laugh answered another laugh, from the darkness where a path went up into the trees. Laughter, and she wanted it. For some reason she took off her shoes and strode in faith, trusting trail, stepping over cones and sticks she couldn’t see. She hesitated at the boundary of forest and bog, but there were Caroline and LC in a pool, bright in the moonlight, grinning up at her.
“LC cooked dinner. It’s delicious! Come eat.”
She set the bottle at the pool, stripped, and sank into the water, thick and warm, wearing the crystal on the chain. She felt easy now, in a new orbit. LC handed her a wooden bowl and spoon. Kay ate slowly. The stew warmed and strengthened her. Caroline opened the wine and they shared it from the bottle, with a little sip for LC. When Kay had scraped the bowl she was ready. She slipped the crystal from the chain.
Caroline’s need was greatest. She wrapped the crystal into the shell of her hands, eyes closed, mind free, and she prayed hard to the strength building among them. When she opened her eyes the glass was clearer than air. Laura must leave the bath and flush the fucking pills. Now. Go, do it! Yes!
It was easy now, with Kay.
Laura and Henry would start back together. He’d learn to cook and shop and he’d slowly trade the guilt for love, hers and his. Laura would have a small, satisfying affair. He would know and say nothing, and not feel that this balanced it, but rather that he had started it and this finished it. Maya would get a boyfriend, score seven goals in a state final lacrosse game, and leave her thighs the hell alone. And they’d pull the Mountain house off the market. Coming up every month would be part of the recovery. No White Diamond this year. She was noble.
There was so much to teach Kay. She could do so well with that little shop.
Kay took it next. The crystal spun images. She turned it gently, until she saw Ed.
In his truck, creeping north in a line of cars. He was heading here. He needed a haircut. He wore the shirt she liked best. He was tense and unhappy.
She stroked him and his neck relaxed. She loved him. But she pursed her lips and blew on him as she might have blown on a dry dandelion. He grinned, and looked at his watch, and changed lanes. He’d get off at Kennebunk, find a bar. A woman with short red hair was sipping a rum and Coke, looking to be found. He felt easy, the first time since he’d left. Goodbye, Ed.
She turned it again. Roberto’s big forearms in short brown sleeves, the heft of a heavy box. She touched the glass to her lips. He decided to take a hike up the Mountain on Tuesday, his day off. Hit the Scotty’s Pass trailhead at 8:30.
Kay would close the store that morning. She’d be a half mile up the trail at 8:30, resting on a rock, and surprised when she saw him, but her pack would hold a picnic. And a blanket. Just the thought of writing the little note for the shop door was erotic. She was growing new nerves.
And the shop would be busy now, too. Very busy. Rich people would tell each other about it, and their friends would come. This was erotic, too, the money in the register drawer and on the card machine.
Finally LC. She knew right then, finally and for sure. She wasn’t little. She wasn’t “LC.” She could be Caroline, if she wanted, or Carrie. Even Lina. Holding the crystal to her chest, she slid under the surface and lifted her feet, touching only water. It was like being baptized, where you got a name, maybe. She burst up, wiping water from her eyes and mouth: “I’m not LC anymore.”
“I’m Lina now.” Mom and Kay laughed, but Mom gave LC—Lina—that really proud Mom smile. Kay bowed to her and said the new name. They would be friends. Lina would have a lot to share.
She waved her arm, skimming the crystal where the water met air, dancing flecks of moon across Mom, and Kay, and herself. She leaned back against the green stone of the pool, held her face to the moon. What life for her? A Ph.D. in neurophysiology, then a professor. Somewhere with a forest. Three kids who’d have a real father, not parthenogenesis. He . . . lived in New York. Brown hair, 5’ 11”, thin. She could see him pretty well. Steve. First he needed to finish high school and become a pediatrician. He’d sail. They’d meet at Harvard.
He’d start lifting weights tomorrow. And get a book about boats.
She saw other things in the crystal. She’d think about them later. A woman had secrets, and she had secrets. Soon she would be stronger than Mom, who was strong. Lina would use science and her abilities both, and do things nobody else could do. An adult could do that.
Douglas Hill used to slaughter cows, drive a cab, run computer networks, and start companies.
FICTION: HOPE TO REBOOT (HAYES MOORE)
BACK-TO-SCHOOL FICTION: A REPORT FROM THE FRONT (TYLER SAGE)
FICTION: COMPANION PLANTS (KATHRYN ROBERTS)
FICTION: IT ONLY HURTS WHEN I LAUGH (BY BEN SCHACHTMAN)
FICTION: THE SUPERIOR ACT (BY CHRISTOPHER HARRIS)
FICTION: HEIST OF THE FROMAGERIE (BY KENT BUCKLEY)